Europe: the leading light in the photonics sector

With some of the most talented photonics and optics experts on the planet, Europe has a peerless knowledgebase. At the same time however, the continent has traditionally been seen as a fragmented player, with strong skills in different regions, topics, universities and companies, but little structure to join up efforts.

A large part of this problem stemmed from the fact that there was no voice or community to tie stakeholders together. So when Photonics21 was created in 2005, photonics and optics experts welcomed its potential to both unite them and to get their concerns heard at the European level. Now, as a recognised Key Enabling Technology (KET) with a Photonics21-penned strategic roadmap, photonics and optics is projected to receive roughly €700 million over the seven years of Horizon 2020.

Photonics around the world

Although not the only indicator of the health of a sector in a country or region, the number of patents granted gives a rough idea of interest in a particular area. According to the KETs Observatory, between 2000 and 2011 Europe’s share of photonics patents gently fluctuated between 25 and 30%. In contrast, the US’s share shrank from 37 to 18%. Meanwhile China went from almost 0 to 9% in the same period of time, with similar growth in other Southeast Asian nations.

Perhaps the most revealing of these statistics are those from the US. The US was seen as a world leader in photonics innovation for decades in the 20th century, but more recently has fallen behind nations who have invested heavily in photonics innovation and worked hard to create cohesive strategies in order to capitalise on their strong skills in the sector.

Recognising this problem, in 2012 the National Research Council of the National Academies released Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation, which called for an umbrella organisation to coordinate the advancement of the US optics and photonics industry. Five of the most prominent American light-related organisations immediately heeded the advice, setting up the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) in the same year.

Now, NPI works with government, industry and academia to drive innovation in the photonics sector in the US. As a direct result of this work, NPI recommendations for a photonics prototyping and advanced manufacturing facility recently bore fruit, with the first Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation launched in July as part of President Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.

Vision for photonics in Europe

According to the Photonics Industry Report, the global photonics market will swell to €615 billion by 2020 and impact hundreds of thousands of jobs. Europe’s share of this market currently stands at ~18%, but for certain core segments – including production technology; optical components and systems; and measurement and automated vision – Europe holds more than one-third of the market, and this figure continues to grow steadily.

Consequently, optics and photonics are incredibly important to the European economy. But with such clear intent from both the US in regaining its dominant position and Southeast Asia in growing its influence as the (relatively) new player in the field, Europe has a challenge in maintaining its position as a major force in the sector.

However, far from just looking to preserve the status quo, Photonics21 and the European Commission are actually aiming to grow Europe’s influence and, in the process, tackle some of the most important socio-economic challenges of the 21st century.

Two important factors are key to realising this ambition. First is to continue to focus on advanced, beyond-state-of-the-art technologies that will cement Europe’s reputation as an innovator in the field. Southeast Asia dominates the market in areas such as low-cost displays and telecommunications, so instead of competing in this market it is better to advance higher value components and devices with enhanced or novel functionality. Second is a greater emphasis on applied research and demonstration projects. With an excellent history in basic research, it is important for the continent to take advantage of this fundamental knowledge and bridge the Valley of Death to commercialisation.

If the Photonics Public Private Partnership through Horizon 2020 can ensure significant efforts focus on these two areas, the future for Europe’s optics and photonics sector looks very bright indeed.

Originally published in the Photonics21 August 2015 newsletter

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